If your organizational culture is like every organizational culture I’ve ever seen (and it is), then it’s a place that loves getting things done. Making it happen. Crossing it off the to-do list. And if you’re like most of the managers I’ve ever worked with and for (and, for that matter, been), then you genuinely do want to figure it out.

The challenge is that with the years of conditioning you’ve had, as soon as you start hearing what a doctor might call “the presenting challenge,” every fibre of your body is twitching with a desire to fix it, solve it, offer a solution to it. It’s Pavlovian. Which is why people in organizations like yours around the world are working very hard and coming up with decent solutions to problems that just don’t matter, and why the real challenges often go unaddressed.

When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.

You’re Solving the Wrong Problem - You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.

You’re Solving the Problem Yourself - Your team has trained you well to do their work for them. Any time there’s a problem, rather than trying to figure it out themselves, they now come to you for the answer. It feels (at times at least) as if it’s easier that way for you and for them, but you may also be noticing that sense of overwhelm that comes from having to do your own job and some of the jobs of the others on your team.

You’re Not Solving the Problem - It’s not like you don’t have your own work to do. And now you’ve found yourself responsible for solving everyone else’s problems, too. And perhaps you don’t actually have the answer to hand, so you ignore that email or you make a vague promise about providing an answer in the near, but not too near, future. Suddenly you’re stopping progress. Not only is the team overly dependent on you, but now you’re feeling overwhelmed and you’re slowing everything and everyone down. You’ve become the VP of Bottlenecking.

You need to stop yourself (and your team) from getting entangled in the first problem that’s put on the table. Slow down just a little and you’ll get to the heart of the issue.

And here’s the question that makes all the difference:

The Focus Question: What’s the Real Challenge Here for You?

This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.

It’s no accident that it’s phrased the way it is. Here’s how it builds to become such a useful question:

• What’s the challenge? Curiosity is taking you in the right direction, but phrased like this the question is too vague. It will most likely generate either an obvious answer or a somewhat abstract answer (or a combination of the two), neither of which is typically helpful.

• What’s the real challenge here? Implied here is that there are a number of challenges to choose from, and you have to find the one that matters most. Phrased like this, the question will always slow people down and make them think more deeply.

• What’s the real challenge here for you?
It’s too easy for people to pontificate about the high-level or abstract challenges in a situation. The “for you” is what pins the question to the person you’re talking to. It keeps the question personal and makes the person you’re talking to wrestle with her struggle and what she needs to figure out.

Your turn:

We’ll keep talking about the F-question in our next bit. But for now, let’s watch this 15-minute video on how to help your team find focus. You’ll find a number of questions and tools you can use to help your team find the focus they need to do more Great Work.

Coming up in the next Bit…
The three bad habits the Focus Question vanquishes.